A Christmas address for Wanstead

A message for Christmas, a Wansteadium tradition. This year it’s from the Reverend Jim Gascoigne who is linked with Wanstead United Reformed Church until a new permanent Minister is appointed there.

The story starts in Bethlehem which, when you look back in time, was an obvious place.

Historically, fields around Bethlehem produced grain and the hillsides provided grazing. There are stories about Ruth and Naomi gleaning from the fields on their journey and three of great King David’s heroes bringing water from Bethlehem. It was a place of nourishment and safety even during troubled times.

Bethlehem was the birth-place of David where, in after years, he was anointed as king. Although David was a warrior king and not as pure as the driven snow, he brought about peace and prosperity and his spiritual quest for a right relationship with God was exemplary. It was a place of nobility and divine purpose.

In the fullness of time, Bethlehem was distinguished above every other city as the birth-place of another, “whose origins are from of old,” as predicted by the Old Testament prophet Micah. Out in the fields an angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.” We are familiar with the Christmas story that, in fulfilment of ancient prophecies, Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem and laid in a manger. Is this simply a quaint story to be repeated each year at Christmas time or is it significant to us? Does it reveal some divine purpose for our well-being and safety?

There wasn’t much joy around in that place where people were living under stern, poverty-inducing occupation and despotic local government. It was common for people to deceive others for their own survival. Then as now, there was a need to deal with corruption and collusion with corruption – plainly speaking to deal with misplaced morals and wrong doing; religiously speaking to deal with sin. There was a desire for a political hero to lead victims out of bondage to Rome but at a deeper level there was a need to address the ‘cause’ not just the ‘symptoms’. There was, and is, a need for a Saviour to revitalise our sense of value and to lead everyone away from sin.

A paradigm circulates helpfully at this time of year. “If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent an educator. If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent a scientist. If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent an economist. If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent an entertainer. If our greatest need had been military, God would have sent a soldier. If our greatest need had been for justice, God would have sent a judge. But, our greatest need was forgiveness and redemption, and, therefore, God sent a Saviour!” This is the gift, the Good News from which joy derives. Deep, real joy is not the result of what we do but the result of what God does.

Today, we live in a world where proof is demanded for everything; what we can’t scrutinise, we suspect. Yet there are invisible things which we recognise like liberty, love and loyalty. So it is with matters of faith. There is a force greater than us at work in the world. Christmas plays out the intrusion of joy into a joyless population. Mary started singing a song. The shepherds danced back to their jobs. Christmas tells us God has acted; God has taken the initiative; God has chosen to be involved. In our battles with political priorities or with malignancies of body, mind, and spirit, it isn’t all left up to us.

God is no discriminator of persons; the Good News is for everyone. Joy is for everyone to experience because the good news is for all people. Not just the religious, but the secular, too. Not just the reverent, but the irreverent, too. Not just the righteous, but the unrighteous, too. Joyful news then and joyful news for us today!

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